Sexual harassment in the workplace: “you should have made it clear!”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual behaviour?  If you are female the likely answer is yes, unfortunately. 

I was lucky enough a while ago to catch the BBC programme “Is This Sexual Harassment?” The show explored the situation of a female beginning a new job as a bar manager. She felt uncomfortable with some of the behaviour of a co-worker, and the presenter asked a group of men and women whether his behaviour was acceptable or not. There were very mixed views as we followed this lady’s story.

These situations are often difficult as they can be ambiguous. A certain look, comment or touch that makes a person feel uncomfortable can be hard to put into words, and on its own seem inconsequential. Complaining that someone looked at you in a sexual way is hard to explain and hard to prove.

For example, one situation in the film that would have made me uncomfortable could be brushed off as a simple compliment: the male coworker bends over the new bar manager as she works at the computer and comments, Nice perfume. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have a problem with someone saying this to me, but in this precise situation, in a work environment, it would have felt inappropriate to me and I would have felt vulnerable.

But would I have said anything? It’s unlikely, and this is the problem.

It’s hard to understand, but even when a woman is uncomfortable with someone she may still smile or laugh something off. But why? Why, when a woman feels uncomfortable, does she not just say so?


Here are some reasons a woman may not speak up about unwanted sexual attention:

  • She doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable at work – Not wanting to feel uncomfortable somewhere you spend a significant amount of time is a big reason for not mentioning something that made you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. These incidents on their own can feel insignificant and easily brushed off. It can feel as if we are making a big fuss over nothing, and it can seem pointless to say, That comment made me feel uncomfortable when the other person can easily respond, I didn’t mean anything by it or I was only being nice. A perpetrator of sexual harassment is unlikely to admit they said anything with the intention of making you feel uncomfortable or that they were wrong to make a comment like this in the workplace. In fact they could take offence; with their ego bruised and their pride dented, they may become defensive and attack. Women often weigh up the situation and decide that on balance it is easier to put up with the unwanted attention than to make an issue of it and risk further problems.
  • She doesn’t want to be criticised or disliked – Everyone wants to be liked and sometimes when a man’s ego is bruised even slightly by rejection he can react badly. It can feel like people will call you petty when mentioning something small like a comment or a touch; women fear it may seem they have no sense of humour, are no fun to be around or have no “banter.” This is a real fear and not unwarranted – the word “banter” is sometimes a front for inappropriate behaviour and a way to normalise or legitimise harassment, just like It was only a joke.
  • The person could turn from friendly (if a little over-friendly) to unfriendly – This is a real fear and not unfounded.  There is bound to be a change if you draw attention to unwanted behaviour and this will not necessarily be for the better.  Things at the very least could be awkward.
  • There may be a power imbalance – As men, overall, are still in the most senior positions in the workplace, it is quite likely that the man making her uncomfortable is in a senior role.  There can be a genuine fear that speaking out could cost you your job and you could be in a position where you rely strongly on your job and the money it pays.  Again this is fear is not unfounded; it does happen.

Don’t rock the boat?

In a situation where you’re receiving unwanted attention at work it can often feel like it’s not worth rocking the boat. I have been in this position myself many times, sometimes in the workplace. Thankfully I have had many well-mannered and friendly, yet respectful, bosses but unfortunately there are a minority of men who don’t play by the rules.

My experience

I once had a male colleague I barely knew, who began sending me inappropriate emails. In this situation I did squash it more or less straight away. I was young but thankfully there was a certain distance due to the fact it was over email, and he worked in a different department. I told my line manager, the situation was dealt with by her and the emails stopped.

An incident I found more challenging was when a college lecturer begain putting his hand on my knee under the table, and asking me to visit him in his office. In this situation I acted much like a startled rabbit! I said nothing, and proceeded to avoid this man as much as possible. Obviously in this situation there was a significant power imbalance that was very intimidating to me. I was around 16 or 17 at the time and felt ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

The time I found easiest to deal with was when a superior at work actually leaned in and kissed me. That might sound worse, but I found it easier because he had clearly crossed a line. It was apparent both to me and to him, and there was no disputing it or explaining it away. But even then, when he was obviously in the wrong, I didn’t make any formal complaints.

Is this sexual harrasment?

In the programme they brought in a barrister at the end to discuss and make clear exactly what is – or is not – legally considered sexual harassment in the workplace. She explained that sexual harassment was

Any unwanted conduct that is related to sex, that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity.

This definition cleared up some confusion between the people on the show; many people in the group felt the male colleague in the film had not meant to cause offence. It is important to note that legally it doesn’t matter if he meant to cause offence; it is the effect his behaviour has on the new bar manager that counts, whether it was purposeful or not.

The barrister went on to discuss which of the behaviours seen in the film would actually constitute sexual harassment. The perfume comment I mentioned above could be described as sexual harassment because he would not be likely to make the same comment to a man. Leaning too close to someone is also sexual harassment in itself, along with other comments the man made (for example referring to the new bar manager as the beauty and himself as the brains). Other behaviours that could be considered sexual harassment included:

  • Touching her back – any form of physical contact other than shaking hands can be considered sexual harassment
  • Kissing her – this might seem obvious but many of us will try to laugh something off when this happens. The kiss in the film did not happen inside work – but he is still her work colleague.

Is this Sexual Harassment brings up important issues that we all need to discuss. I think it’s important that a woman knows what her actual rights are in law. It was interesting and gratifying to hear that our instincts are backed up in law.

If it feels wrong, then it is wrong.

If I had known this when I was younger I may have been more sure of myself and what I would and would not tolerate… perhaps. I would still have found these situations difficult and distressing – but at least I would have known for sure that what these men had done was wrong.

Just say no?

The ambiguity surrounding sexual harassment often does not allow the opportunity to say No directly. Behaviour is often vague or questionable; easily denied or laughed off as a misunderstanding.

If a guy asked if you’d like to go for a drink after work, you could clearly say no – but sexual harassment often presents itself as seemingly small, seemingly unimportant instances: remarks or nuances that if remarked upon can seem like you are blowing your own trumpet.

It is easy to force blame onto a woman and say She should have been clear but it is often not as simple as that. In an ideal world she shouldn’t need to be.

So for now, take it from me: In the workplace women want to be friendly, yes. But they do not need compliments on their appearance, touches or personal remarks. Be as friendly as you would to any other work colleague. If you think more of them and it is appropriate, ask them to meet away from work and give them a chance to decline. We all have the right to feel relaxed and safe in the workplace. Is that clear enough?

I’d love to hear from you if this brings up further questions or comments.  Have you ever experienced sexual harassment in your place of work?  Did you do anything about it?  Did you know your legal rights?